There are no secret histories

I loved my Penguin Classics paperback of Procopius’ Secret History as an undergraduate. I still have the book in a box in my office, though I haven’t had cause to take it out recently. Procopius of Caesarea lived in the age of Justinian (r. 527–565 CE), earning a living as secretary and historian for the emperor’s talented general Belisarius. He wrote numerous official histories that detailed Belisarius’ campaigns as part of Justinian’s wars of reconquest, but is better known for the other thing he wrote. That other thing is the Secret History.

In the Secret History, Procopius goes full Alex Jones of the sixth century CE. He accuses the emperor of being a devil stalking the halls of the palace and bringing a devastating plague to the world. These pages reveal a special hatred for women. He accuses Belisarius’ wife of cuckolding her husband with their adopted son, and dedicates long passages to the behavior of Empress Theodora, describing her (alleged) sexual appetites in lurid, pornographic detail. But for all that Procopius reveals about social controversies of his age, the Secret History reads more like a bitter screed than a careful history debunking the official version of events. And for good reason. Published now as the Secret History it was known in the Byzantine Suda as the Anecdota (Ἀνἐκδοτα) or “Unpublished” works.

Procopius is a special case, but I have been thinking about this book recently in conjunction with the genre of popular history book touting to reveal the history your teachers never taught you in school. Between the extremes of conspiracy theory, there is a spectrum of media united in the claim to reveal the truth about the past. Done well, this manifests as, for instance, the 99 Percent Invisible podcast that explores aspects of things that aren’t secret, but also aren’t immediately evident. Frequently, though, they are marketed more explosively as secret histories or under a title promising to reveal arcana guarded by the implacable sentry that is the history textbook.

I love history because it is big and weird—so big, in fact, that the science-oriented Randall Munroe  sarcastically proposed axing all odd or even years.  I say something to this effect to my students at the outset of nearly every course. The rhetorical move made by media marketing itself as “what professors didn’t tell you” is that teaching history requires selection. People who teach US history, as I did last semester, lament the impossibility of covering 150 years or so with any degree of depth, and the problem grows exponentially when the geographical and chronological scope swells to, say, everything in World History before 1500––or even before 1969 as in a course I took in college. Leaving aside the issue of sources, expertise, and political pressures to censor out most scandal, finite class time necessarily leads to superficial and spotty coverage. 

Most history exists beyond the walls of the classroom. Books patiently sit on dusty shelves waiting for a curious mind to challenge the tyranny of the textbook.

(I also believe that history as a discipline undercuts its own authority by introducing students to the field through big, broad courses rather than narrower, idiosyncratic courses. Inverting this structure would start students off with classes that deal with material on a human level, with the specificity of storytelling and enough engagement to arm students with tools before concluding with surveys that tie together the specific material with discussion of broad themes after students were invested enough to appreciate the big picture. In other words, history is taught backward even if reversing course is nigh on impossible.)

Spotty coverage does not a secret history make. I stress in my courses that history is a process, both in doing history and in how it unfolds. Touting something a secret history is at best a marketing gimmick and at worst something more sinister, both of which devalue the process.

There are no secret histories, only history not yet written. Individual documents may be restricted and authorities may push a particular narrative, and in this sense HISTORY is incomplete—and will always be.

December 2013 Reading Recap

My progress through Herman Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund has slowed, so I thought to write this post up a bit early. Sometime in January I also plan to revisit my top novels post I did once before.

  • Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis – Reviewed here, Lucky Jim is a comedy of errors. On some level, James Dixon is alienated from teaching at the university because he is surrounded by insane people, but on another he is a college instructor who is wholly unsuited for the position. I had a particularly strong negative reaction to this novel, which is reflected in the review, but the more I reflect on it the funnier the story is and it is likely to appear on my updated list of top novels–even if I still have misgivings about the moral presented about people in academia and what contingent faculty should do with themselves.
  • The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, Junichiro Tanizaki – reviewed here, Tanizaki “explains” on the basis of several fictional sources the rumored, but unknown, sexual desires that drove the eponymous Lord of Musashi to become a successful warlord. I enjoyed the book, although I did note that it seemed to be a solid addition to a secret history genre, rather than a great novel in its own right.
  • Scoop, Evelyn Waugh, a novel satirizing news media, public consumption of news, journalism, and foreign correspondents. John Boot, an author, pulls some strings to get a job as a correspondent in Ishmaelia, an African country on the brink of civil war, so that he can escape a persistent women. But the newspaper hires the wrong Boot, William, a homebody whose writing consists of stories about country fauna. William does take the job and goes to Ishmaelia, where he is a fish out of water. Waugh has some wicked insights about what news is and the absurdities of journalism.
  • The Stranger, Albert Camus – Mersault works hard, he is seeing a woman from work who he might marry, and he gets to go swimming. His mother has just died, but other than that his life could be described as good. Mersault might not say so, though. Life is. His pattern of life changes drastically when he shoots an unknown Arab man on the beach.
  • The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway – One of Hemingway’s incomplete posthumous novels that was heavily pruned from the manuscript form (something like 2/3 of manuscript was cut to create the story in its published form). David Bourne and his wife Catherine are on their honeymoon along the Mediterranean coast of France. The couple is in love and, in typical Hemingway fashion, most of their time is spent eat, drinking, and swimming, sleeping, and having sex. The erotic games really begin when Catherine begins to alter her appearance to more resemble her husband and take control of their relationship and then when she brings a new woman into her marriage. There is an emptiness to this story that is more pronounced than usual, probably because the story was incomplete and because it was so thoroughly trimmed. There are still some things to recommend The Garden of Eden–Catherine is a fuller, more powerful female character than most Hemingway created, he creates a powerful sense of place for a beautiful setting, and the story that remains has some rich irony given the background of manuscript.

As noted above, I will finish Narcissus and Goldmund in the next few days, and after that I don’t know what I will read. As of this writing, tomorrow is a new year and the possibilities are endless.